Episode 82: Pain at the Pump
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon, and I am here with my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek.
Aaron Naparstek: Hey, what’s up?
Sarah Goodyear: Hey there.
Doug: On this episode: pain at the pump. As we record this, the average price of gas in the United States is $4.32 a gallon, according to AAA.
Sarah: And that means, of course, that cable news is freaking out. And some urbanists—so-called—are feeling pretty smug about riding the bus or riding a bike.
Aaron: Well, I mean, Coca-Cola is $8.20 a gallon right now.
Aaron: At least the syrup, according to this chart. So gas is a bargain!
Sarah: But people who are trapped by car dependence, which is basically pretty much everyone who lives in the United States of America, are feeling the pain in their wallets. And all of this has become, you know, a fun political football.
Aaron: Red Bull Energy Drink: $30 a gallon.
Aaron: Jamba Juice: $21.82.
Sarah: Oh my God!
Doug: So what you’re saying is we should advise people to fill up their Range Rovers with Jamba Juice?
Sarah: That’s what the urban elites would advise, yes.
Doug: This is the future liberals want.
Aaron: Robitussin: $110 a gallon.
Sarah: [laughs] Okay.
Doug: But this is not the first time that the United States has been rocked by high gas prices. Why do we never seem to learn that basing a transportation system on the whims of petro-states or narcissistic autocrats and the global demand for oil, you know, why do we never seem to remember that that is just not a good idea? With us to discuss it all is Henry Grabar, who is a staff writer at Slate. Henry Grabar, welcome to The War on Cars.
Henry Grabar: Thanks for having me.
Doug: Henry, before we get started, your work covers transportation, it covers urban issues, all kinds of great stuff. You’ve been writing at Slate for a long time, but you’re also working on a book about a subject near and dear to The War on Cars: parking. I wonder if you could tell us about that real fast?
Henry Grabar: Yes, I think your listenership may be the rare segment of American media that doesn’t hear a book about parking and just immediately think, “Well, that sounds like the most boring thing in the world.” That’s most people’s reaction. But I think we know that parking is, in fact, the secret ingredient in the recipe for American urbanism, and the thing that makes American cities and suburbs look and feel and function the way they do. So my book is a kind of narrative history of how we came to allow parking to dictate the design of the places we live, and the efforts that are happening now and have been happening for a while to try and dig our way out of that, and maybe take parking a notch or two down on the hierarchy of needs.
Aaron: I mean, anyone who’s ever been to a local community meeting to discuss any transportation issue knows that it’s all about parking. It’s like the key to the universe is parking.
Henry Grabar: Yeah. One of the challenges of this book has been limiting the scope of things to discuss about parking because as you say, like, that parking is not just local politics, but the architecture of buildings, the design of cities, the way we get around, it has a huge impact on the environment. So all of that is going into the book, and there are plenty of local community meetings. So if you like that kind of thing, you will like the book.
Doug: When does the book come out?
Henry Grabar: Early 2023.
Doug: Okay. If there is a world to be in in 2023, we will have you back to discuss parking.
Aaron: Parking will still be here in 2023.
Sarah: So let’s step back and take a look at oil imports, the war in Ukraine, how that’s affecting what’s happening here in the United States. What’s the response? What are we looking at here?
Aaron: Well, we just had a nuclear-armed, fossil-fuel-funded oligarch who runs an entire country, Russia, invade another country, Ukraine. And that has driven oil prices up. And so pain at the pump was top of mind for President Joe Biden in the speech he made on February 24. That was the day that the Russian invasion of Ukraine started.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: I know this is hard, and that Americans are already hurting. I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me. But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.]
Doug: Okay, so then just a week later, at the State of the Union address on March 1, action to alleviate America’s pain at the pump was underway.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: Tonight, I can announce the United States has worked with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world. America will lead that effort, releasing 30 million barrels of our own strategic petroleum reserve, and we stand ready to do more if necessary, united with our allies. These steps will help blunt gas prices here at home, but I know news about what’s happening can seem alarming to all Americans. But I want you to know we’re going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.]
Doug: We are going to be okay. Soothing words from Uncle Joe.
Sarah: Are we really gonna be okay? I don’t think that if we continue being who we are, that we are gonna be okay. Like, I think the point is that we need to change and grow a little bit.
Doug: So that’s the perfect segue, Sarah, to the piece that Henry wrote in Slate that talks about lessons that we learned—or really didn’t learn—since the last time America had to deal with high gas prices. We will get to Henry’s piece and more of a discussion about this after the break.
Sarah: Here’s a good solution to pain at the pump. You can ride an e-bike.
Doug: Rising gas prices have highlighted how much we all have to gain from the transition to more efficient, affordable methods of transportation. There’s never been a better time to ride a Rad Power bike.
Aaron: The average car trip is less than four miles. You don’t need a 4,500-pound gas guzzler for that.
Sarah: And with Rad’s front and rear storage options, you’ll never worry about missing your trunk.
Doug: Visit RadPowerBikes.com to find the right e-bike for you or for someone in your life who wants to spend less time in a car. There are plenty of bikes in stock, and shipping is free.
Aaron: Again, that’s RadPowerBikes.com.
Sarah: Helping you simplify your commute, save money and win the war on cars.
Sarah: Guys, I gotta tell you, I have a Cleverhood problem at my house.
Doug: Sarah, this is an ad. You’re not supposed to talk about problems with the product.
Sarah: The problem is that every time it rains, my wife steals my Cleverhood.
Aaron: I had a Cleverhood problem this weekend, too.
Sarah: And what is your problem?
Aaron: It was freezing rain on Saturday. I went to take my dog out. He would not step foot outside of the house because he didn’t have a Cleverhood like I did.
Doug: All right. Well, I guess I will share my problem. So everyone in my household has a Cleverhood, but my daughter’s rain cape is the same bright yellow as my anorak, and she doesn’t like to be too matchy-matchy with her father because she is 12 going on 16. So I don’t know. That’s a good problem to have, that we have too many.
Aaron: So the problem basically is everybody needs a Cleverhood.
Doug: And if you want to get a Cleverhood, you can just go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and you can save 20 percent off anything in the Cleverhood store with code “happycommute.”
Sarah: Cleverhood: if everyone has their own, there’s no problem.
Doug: Okay. So Henry, you had a piece in Slate recently. It’s titled “Are Gas Prices Too High? Or Is Your Car Too Big?” And the subhead is: “When it comes to oil shocks, we have the memory of goldfish.” One of the details that you write about, it comes from a Harvard Business Review story called “Celebrating $4 Gas,” in which the economist Matthew Kahn writes that basically because of high gas prices, people will live in center cities, live an urban life, occupy high-density apartment buildings close to transit. But the twist here is that that was written in 2011.
Henry Grabar: Yeah. What a time it was. I remember it well because I started working at The Atlantic Cities—now called CityLab—in 2012. And that site had been founded in 2011, and I very much felt that we were part of that wave of optimism about cities and about re-urbanization and about people deciding, finally, that this was the way that they wanted to live, not in McMansions 40 miles from the city center, driving three SUVs, but in potentially smaller apartments with more neighbors, walkable access to amenities, all that stuff. It felt like it was very, very much in the air at that time. There were a series of books to this effect. I think somebody wrote one about the end of the suburbs. There was the book The Great Inversion. This kind of thinking was everywhere. And part of it, I think, was that in 2008 and again in 2011, we had really, really high gas prices. And this prompted a wave of thinking about what the trickle-down effects of that might be in terms of the way people lived and drove and all that stuff.
Sarah: Yeah, I was there too at Atlantic Cities in that era, and I remember that hopeful time. And what’s kind of sad to me looking back at it now is our very naive attitude or expectation that people were going to act rationally, and that they would realize that you can’t just change things on the supply side, you have to change things on the demand side. That there was just sort of like an expectation that people are rational actors in an economy, which I’ve come to reconsider strongly since. [laughs]
Henry Grabar: See, I might disagree with you there because I mean, we can talk about this in a minute, but I think several things happened subsequently that served to undermine the rationalness of choosing city life, choosing to drive less and all those things. And that was part of that post-2011 transformation. There was this moment, 2011-2012, when Obama in 2011 passed these ambitious new corporate average fuel economy standards, which—the CAFE standards. And that meant that carmakers had to basically quickly improve the average miles per gallon that their new models were getting. And buyers also had been—we were just coming out of the Great Recession. The economy was really bad, public transit use was up, people were buying smaller cars, driving less, using transit more. And all those things were true for a moment, but then things changed pretty quickly because the CAFE rules turned out to have a huge loophole in them. Gas prices fell. And perhaps most importantly, the cost of living in places where you don’t need a car started to go up really fast.
Aaron: So Henry, you mentioned a loophole. That seems pretty important. What was the loophole?
Henry Grabar: Well basically, they realized that different automakers make different types of vehicles, and to hold every automaker to the same standard wouldn’t be fair to those automakers who were more reliant on heavier vehicles that consumed more fuel. Now you can imagine if they had held everybody to the same standard, this would have really incentivized automakers to start making smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. But the automakers succeeded in carving out basically a two-tier loophole, whereby heavier and larger cars like pickup trucks were held to different standards than sedans, and that made it a lot easier for automakers to keep producing bigger cars.
Henry Grabar: And then as gas prices fell and Americans’ preference for SUVs and pickup trucks surged, Americans and automakers were totally in sync and ready to start shifting into full-on manufacturing of much larger cars that consumed more gas and polluted more. And, you know, the CAFE standards did improve emissions for pickup trucks and SUVs, but a lot of that good work was undone by the subsequent shift wherein car buyers started buying pickup trucks and SUVs. And in fact, the big three automakers stopped even manufacturing cars in the United States just a few years later. So that goes to show how quickly we moved from everybody’s gonna drive a small car and live in the city if they drive at all, to business as usual, and perhaps even more so. I don’t think the share of new car purchases has ever been so tilted towards SUVs and pickups as it is today.
Sarah: So this seems to me like an example of the Jevons paradox, which is named after a 19th-century English economist, who observed that increased fuel efficiency leads to greater fuel consumption. And sometimes that’s been used as an argument against fuel efficiency standards and attempts at conservation because, you know, it holds that if you increase fuel efficiency, people will just start using that more fuel for more things to increase their productivity.
Henry Grabar: That’s super interesting, I’ve never heard of that, and in most contexts, I think that would be considered an example of basically a win for society in the sense that, you know, if you invent a more fuel-efficient, a more energy-efficient dishwasher or washing machine or something like that, that allows you to wash more clothes or wash more dishes or do things faster and all that. And those gains should be good for society. In the case of automobiles, if that’s held true, it’s held true in a way that I guess reveals consumer preferences, but doesn’t appear to contain any other positive gains for the rest of us. If anything, I think the shift towards bigger cars—I know you guys have discussed this extensively—has had a number of negative consequences. So that seems like maybe an add-on to the Jevons paradox, that there is a case in which people use fuel efficiency gains to unlock needless energy expenditures.
Doug: And it’s a bit of an aside, and you essentially referenced this, but starting in around 2010-2011 is when our pedestrian safety crisis starts to really become more apparent. And yes, you could chalk it up to everyone having a smartphone, but everyone in Europe had smartphones, and they did not see quite the change in traffic fatalities that we saw here. And almost all of it is attributed to Americans driving these larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles.
Henry Grabar: Right. And there are so many consequences associated with our failure to capitalize on that moment of high gas prices to induce changes on the demand side. I mean, the way I see it, in that period, we thought about making some demand side changes, such as urban living, smaller cars, electric cars, all this stuff. But then instead, what we actually did was we made supply side changes, and we started fracking at a level we had never done before. The US became the world’s top oil producer. We managed to lower the price of gasoline by drilling for a ton of oil, and consumption patterns again reverted to what they had been historically.
Henry Grabar: And there are a number of externalities associated with that change. One of them, I think, is the pedestrian safety crisis, but the biggest one probably, and the one that has the most relevance to our discussion today, is that I’ve seen an estimate that 40 percent of the fuel efficiency gains unlocked by the CAFE standard in 2011 has been undone by the preference shift towards larger vehicles. So that’s the paradox that Sarah was talking about in action. And 40 percent is a lot.
Doug: This seems like as good a place as any to maybe stop and do a sort of disclaimer, which is that in a lot of the discussions about high gas prices, you can see—especially on social media, you see a lot of smugness and sort of gloating from the urbanist set of, “You know, these stupid Americans. They bought these giant cars, and now they’re whining about gas prices. And screw these people who bought a Cadillac Escalade for $80,000 and are now whining about $5 a gallon gas.” I think that’s fine. You know, there are some people who really made poor choices, but we definitely have to have sympathy for the essentially 99.99 percent of Americans who are trapped in places where there isn’t an option, where even if they are driving a reasonably-sized car, a sedan, a Honda Civic, and gas goes up by a dollar or two a gallon, that is eating a significant chunk of their of their wages.
Doug: So I don’t want anyone to write TheWaronCars@gmail.com and say, “Oh you silly urbanists, you elitists living in Brooklyn. You have no sense of what it’s like for regular, hardworking Americans.” We do. I am sympathetic to those people. Part of the goal of The War on Cars is to move us to a place where people are not trapped through no choice of their own by gas prices or the price of a very expensive truck when they could be using something a lot smaller.
Aaron: Right. But, you know, the tricky thing about this to me is that to move us to this better place, to this systemic change where we are less dependent on cars, we need to be able to fund transit and more density, more urban density so people live closer to things and don’t need to drive. We need to be able to fund, you know, citywide bike networks. And probably the best way to do that would be with a gas tax, so that when gasoline is cheap we, you know, put a tax on it, and then use that money to fund infrastructure that helps get us off of gas. But every time we have the chance to do that, we don’t. And Henry, you write about that a little bit, right?
Henry Grabar: Yeah. I think, you know, like the gas tax has been the same since the early—the federal gas tax has not changed since the early 1990s, which means that, in real terms, the federal gas tax has fallen by something like 40 to 50 percent. It’s supposed to fund the infrastructure that drivers use, but because we haven’t raised it in almost three decades, we now find ourselves committing hundreds of billions of dollars from the General Fund into the Highway Trust Fund to make up for the fact that the gas tax is so low.
Henry Grabar: In terms of the gas tax’s equity impact, rich people buy way more gas than poor people. The most recent estimate I saw from one of the BLS surveys was that the highest quintile in terms of income buys three times as much gas as the lowest quintile. And obviously, the poorest Americans don’t own cars at all, and so don’t buy any gas. But of course, for many Americans who are stuck driving to work, it is an equity issue when gas becomes super expensive. With respect to the current political discussion around whether to have a gas tax holiday at the federal or the state level, it’s pretty clear to me that there would be more precise ways to help working people who are being hurt by high gas prices than to repeal this 20 cent a gallon federal tax.
Henry Grabar: But I guess, you know, maybe a question for you guys is: what is our concern about the current moment of high gas prices? Is it the equity effect in terms of the consequences for people who are car dependent and low income and rely on their car to go to work? Or is it the political consequences in that high gas prices might result in a total wipeout for politicians who eventually support the transition away from fossil fuels, and in favor of politicians who want to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, et cetera?
Sarah: I mean, I would say both of the above. I mean, yes, there’s an equity impact on people, especially with, you know, drive-’til-you-qualify housing, and people having moved farther and farther away from their work. And now with return to office being prioritized, and of course, essential workers always have had to be going in during the pandemic. So there’s real equity issues because people don’t have alternatives because we haven’t built the systems that would give them alternatives to driving in the past. And so, yeah, the immediate equity effects are really significant. But not only is there bad political fallout for politicians who are willing to say we need to make those systemic changes, but also we’re in danger, I think, of creating policies that have long-term effects now that would bake in driving further into American infrastructure, and that’s a real concern as well. So I mean, I think, you know, short term and long term, both are significant concerns for me, anyway. I don’t know what you guys think.
Doug: I think for me, I’m probably more concerned with the latter, the political part of it, because high gas prices always affect the party in power, and the president doesn’t actually have that much to do, that much control over the price of gas at your local pump. And so, you know, we have a propaganda network pumping American eyeballs full of bad news about our “socialist” president Joe Biden, and they are going to use this. They have used this as a political game to score points against the Democratic agenda, even though there isn’t a whole lot the Democrats can do. You know, we’re seeing this on Fox News, where one week conservative commentators are saying Joe Biden is too weak on Russia, he’s got to do something. And then the next week after he says we’re gonna stop buying Russian oil, it’s oh, Biden wants you to pay more at the pump.
Aaron: And, you know, the political attack is so easy, it’s so obvious. You can see it ramping up on Fox News every night. This was a panel of—it was like a panel of the worst people in the world. Two of the clips you’ll hear here, one is this guy, Greg Gutfeld, and the other one is Jesse Watters.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Gutfeld: This is why they don’t care about it, because they want us to pay more. They want us to feel pain at the pump so we reduce our oil usage or gas usage, and then we go to the cars with windmills in their back seats.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jesse Watters: Oil is like food. You need it to live. You can’t survive, America cannot survive without oil, inexpensive oil. So they need to get their act together. And I’m sick of him telling people to drive electric. He doesn’t drive electric. He drives these muscle cars. They get terrible miles to the gallon. Psaki doesn’t drive an EV.]
Sarah: But despite all the hot air on Fox News, the reality is that the vast majority of Americans support stopping Russian oil imports even if it causes them pain at the pump. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 70 percent—70 percent of Americans, including 66 percent of Republicans, are in favor of stopping Russian oil imports, regardless of the effect it has on gas prices here in the United States.
Doug: Yeah. I mean, I think the interesting thing is that before the invasion, gas prices were going up and it was hurting Biden pretty badly. But once he was able to frame it as this is the right thing to do, this is who we are, his popularity rating went up by a little bit. So, you know, it probably speaks to the Democrats’ need to frame issues better and not just respond to stuff all the time. So yeah, I think, you know, Henry to answer your question. I’m a little worried about where this goes as we head towards fascism and autocracy, that this could be exploited as a political issue to get more Republicans who want to undo, you know, voting rights.
Henry Grabar: Well, yeah. I mean, that’s sort of what I’m getting at, because I think we’ve seen the fallout from the system. You know, people are, for example, complaining about oil companies not investing in taking more oil out of the ground. And it’s like, isn’t that what we’ve been trying to do for the last 10 years is, like, get these oil companies to stop doing that? And now all of a sudden we want to suddenly reverse that to flood the market with more gasoline and bring costs down? So there are some societal benefits to reminding everybody that our dependence on fossil fuels does not leave us in a comfortable place. And yes, it’s been 10 years since the last time this happened, but I would like to think it’s not too late for us to start making some of the changes that would allow us to be less dependent on this stuff. And that’s only gonna happen when gas prices are high, because when gas prices are low, people just buy their F-150 and don’t worry about it.
Sarah: You’re in France right now, a place where higher gas prices led to really widespread social unrest. And I mean, I feel like the idea of higher gas prices is something that precisely the sort of right wing populist proto-fascist movements around the world have seized on as one of their rallying cries. Indeed, to the point where here in the US, you know, they’re driving around in circles to burn as much gas as they can while they protest high gas prices or vaccine mandates.
Doug: I don’t think they know what they’re protesting anymore, so … [laughs]
Sarah: Or a combination of the two.
Aaron: And you’re specifically referring to the “freedom truckers,” we should be clear.
Sarah: Thank you. The “freedom truckers.” I’d forgotten exactly what they were called. And in France, it was the gilets jaunes. And, you know, I mean, it seems like there’s a quite—the way that high gas prices can feed right wing populism is something to really watch out for.
Henry Grabar: Yes, that is certainly true. Obviously, France was brought to its knees in 2018 by the yellow vest protesters who were upset about an environmentally-minded tax on gas. That said, gas costs a lot more in France than it does in the US right off the bat. So that is part of the context. I think the other thing that’s happening in the United States, and maybe this speaks to Doug’s earlier point, is that gas prices were initially going up because of a pandemic-induced supply shock. It was not that long ago that oil futures were negative, and that oil producers had to pay people to take the stuff off their hands. So you can see why they are reluctant to just head right out there given this turn around, and make investments in wells or rigs or oil fields that might not pay off for the next 10 years.
Henry Grabar: And I think that’s, like I was saying, kind of a good thing. But I think maybe the crisis in Ukraine gives Biden some political cover to explain away what is otherwise kind of just a part of the general inflationary trend. And the other thing I would say about the current gas prices is that they’re actually not as high—adjusted for inflation—as they were in 2008. So to the extent this is a real crisis in Americans’ ability to get by versus a kind of media-driven panic at the pump sticker shock, like, you know, these big signs on the side of the road, it makes an attractive five-minute local news segment but, you know, we’ve been through this before, and we’ve seen the way when gas prices really get so high that people are having trouble handling it, we’ve made some pretty serious adaptations in the past in these moments. And I don’t see a lot of appetite to do that from anybody. So I wonder to what degree this is really gonna lead to political fallout for him if things persist like this.
Aaron: We should also be clear that, you know, Europe’s issues right now are different than the United States. So in the US, Russian oil only makes up about eight percent of our imports. So—and that’s a lot. That’s 670-something thousand barrels of oil per day. You know, but the world consumes 97 million barrels of oil a day. So that eight percent, that 670,000 barrels, it’s not that much. But it’s enough to affect global oil prices and our own gas prices.
Aaron: But for Europe, this Russia situation is much more acute, right? I mean, Russia supplies over 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas, and that’s gas used not so much for cars and trucks, but for heating homes and buildings. So Europe is quite literally hostage to Russian oil and gas, to Russian fossil fuels. And since the invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has paid over €12-billion to Russia for the purchase of fossil fuels. So the thing that concerns me constantly, but especially when these kind of destabilizing situations come up, is that we’re just hostage to fossil fuels, we’re hostage to gas prices. And in the US, our domestic politics and our foreign policy, we’re just hostage to fossil fuels.
Henry Grabar: I think one thing that is happening in Europe is—particularly in Germany, which has been the most reliant country in terms of the total amount of fuel they import from Russia, and obviously, Germany is where that Nord Stream 2 pipeline was going to—and that was something that actually …
Aaron: Over half of Germany’s gas comes from Russia.
Henry Grabar: Right. And I think the issue that you’re pointing out, being this dependent on Russia for fuel, essentially holds these countries’ foreign policy hostage has been remarked on before. Donald Trump pointed it out just a couple of years ago in talking about the Nord Stream pipeline. But what’s interesting about this moment is while European countries sort of are in a really tight bind with respect to how they’re going to heat homes and fuel cars and run factories, if they do decide that they need to cut off supplies from Russia, this crisis has prompted a rethinking in a lot of these countries about the need to get renewable energy to a place where they do not need to be dependent on Russia for this fuel.
Henry Grabar: And maybe that’s sort of ugly in the short term, and it means coal-powered—coal-fired power plants burning coal. But in the long term, it means France recommitting to nuclear energy. It means heat pumps for buildings. You know, and it’s one of these moments where I think high gas prices are a crisis, but it should be a moment that people should try and take advantage of in terms of pushing towards these more sustainable policies. And that is happening in Europe, and I haven’t seen that much evidence of it happening in the United States.
Sarah: But isn’t that because the American gerontocracy is old enough to still be suffering from PTSD from the Carter presidency?
Aaron: I think so. And even in 2004, John Kerry talked about some of this stuff when, you know, we had a similar situation, except it was us doing the invasion. It was the US doing the invasion of Iraq. We destabilized global oil markets. Gas went up to a whopping, like, $2.85 a gallon in 2004. Everybody freaked out about that. John Kerry talked about, let’s do alternatives. Let’s do more sustainable energy. And he lost. He lost the presidency.
Henry Grabar: Yeah, I mean, there is a remarkable political thing happening in America where to even consider any adaptation that would reduce the use of gas is considered some sort of grossly insensitive, elitist play. Like, I saw a clip of Pete Buttigieg talking on Fox News almost as an aside about how having an electric vehicle makes you less dependent on the price of gas. And all of these conservatives, I think Tucker Carlson, somebody like that, they were all over this as if he had committed some enormous faux pas, despite the fact that what we’re dealing with is a situation where in any rational society the response would be, “Can we find a way to use less gas?” Right? Like, that’s why gas costs so much because we’re coming out of the pandemic, supply chains haven’t recovered, but we’re driving almost exactly as much as we were before.
Henry Grabar: And if you look back, and I’m not saying that the 1973 OPEC crisis is a policy document that we should put into play, as you mentioned, Sarah, this left a lasting mark on the American psyche, but I wrote about it recently because I was interested in the adaptations that Richard Nixon put in place to deal with it. And it’s remarkable the amount of collective sacrifice that everybody engaged in to get through it. We had year-round Daylight Savings Time. We had a 55 mile an hour speed limit. NASCAR shortened its races by 10 percent. We turned off Christmas lights.
Aaron: [laughs] Wow!
Doug: That’s my favorite detail from your story. Christmas lights. Can you imagine? You can’t imagine a Republican president doing it today, but certainly if a Democratic president said, “Hey, please turn off your Christmas lights,” that is the war on Christmas right there. And here is Richard Nixon, that noted Communist Richard Nixon, telling people to turn off their Christmas lights. You can’t imagine it today.
Henry Grabar: You know, maybe? I mean, they said only Richard Nixon could have opened US policy towards China, right? Like, only Richard Nixon could have told America to turn off its Christmas lights. And maybe we need to wait for President Ron DeSantis to turn off the Christmas lights.
Doug: So Henry, that’s probably a good lead-in to a question that I have then: what are the good short-term solutions that would have an immediate impact on people’s wallets and be beneficial and achievable right now?
Henry Grabar: That’s such a difficult question. The big one that’s being discussed right now is a gas tax holiday, which we’ve seen proposed by Congressional Democrats, who are surely scared for their skins in the upcoming midterm election, and also a handful of Democratic governors who are also up for reelection and also think that they’re probably gonna lose because of high gas prices. I think that’s not a good idea. And I think there’s a few reasons why it’s not a good idea, but maybe the most important one is that it might not actually achieve its aims. I think there’s some concern that if we were to knock 20 or 30 cents off the price of gas, that people would consume more gas, sending prices right back up. And if that was not the result, then that cash saved on gas might be put into other inflationary sectors and the general inflation situation would just get worse.
Henry Grabar: So I would say right off the bat that I do not think the Democrats’ preferred option here is a good one. I’m not a oil economist, but some of the things that I have seen suggested are putting more pressure on OPEC to release more oil, negotiating with Iran and Venezuela to get more oil from them, finding ways to convince frackers to reinvest and start pumping more oil out of the Great Plains, despite the fact that they lost their shirts two or three years ago at the beginning of the pandemic. But again, all of these things are about producing more oil to produce more gasoline. So that’s one category of change that, in the long run, isn’t really gonna help us get where we need to go. And in terms of the other stuff, I’m really not sure. I’m curious about what you guys think. You know, this is a—in the short term, it’s pretty hard to adapt the way the society is constructed, which is to say, like, lots of people living really far from the places they need to go every day, and reliant on one or two or three vehicles per household to accomplish basic tasks.
Aaron: Look, like, there is this short-term problem that’s constant: that we’re dependent on cars, we’re dependent on gas. And we need to change that. And there’s no real quick fix for changing that, and we need to be honest about that. We need to have a conversation about that. And I actually think there is a way to do it that would be appealing to people, that, you know, people like being treated like an adult. People like being leveled with. And, you know, it is the folks talking about the Green New Deal who are coming the closest to doing that, that we need to start making these long-term changes that will get us off of gasoline. That we are essentially a nation whose domestic politics and foreign policy is held hostage to its SUVs.
Henry Grabar: One moment for optimism here, perhaps, is this poll you were talking about, Sarah, that shows that people are generally willing to pay a little more for gas if it means that we’re supporting the war effort in Ukraine. I wonder if one of the reasons that that’s happening is because of the type of driving that Americans are doing now. We know that vehicle miles traveled have basically rebounded to the same point they were before the pandemic, despite the fact that many offices still have some sort of flexible remote work arrangements and lots of people are not going to the office five days a week. So I wonder if the driving that’s happening now is somewhat more discretionary than the driving that was happening before the pandemic, and in that sense, if there is a little room for people to change the way they’re getting around in light of this, and that if we will see people’s willingness to change their habits.
Henry Grabar: You know, there are obviously several precedents in American history where gas has been really expensive and we’ve asked people to make sacrifices or conserve or drive slower or, you know, cancel a 24-hour NASCAR race. Like, all that stuff has happened. And it’s going—the muscle memory isn’t quite there for Democrats clearly, in terms of trying to encourage people to make demand-side changes in the name of patriotism and environmentalism and conservation and all that. But does that mean we couldn’t find a way to come up with some sort of politics along those lines? It doesn’t seem impossible.
Aaron: I think we have to at least try to be optimistic. And one of the ways that I can get myself into a more optimistic place is to think that, you know, national politics in the US is very broken right now, and we’re stuck with these guys like Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, who, you know, doesn’t want to let us get off of fossil fuels because that’s—you know, he’s a coal baron himself. But we can do a lot in New York City. We can do a lot in New York state. You know, we have our own governments that we could be focused on. And I think, you know—and not just in New York, but in Illinois and California and a number of other cities and states. And I think that’s probably where the focus needs to go because national politics is really difficult and dysfunctional and broken. And frankly, so is our state politics, but it’s smaller and we have more say in it. We have more control over it.
Doug: Yes, we have more control at the local level, but the nimbyism that is fighting back against the kind of development that we need? I mean, I think that’s the case that housing advocates try to make, that bike advocates and safe streets advocates try to make that, like, everything is an oil pipeline. Suburban sprawl is an oil pipeline. A parking lot is an oil pipeline. And we need to be making that case a lot harder because the NIMBYs who are fighting against changing anything and allowing it so that people who aren’t making millions of dollars can afford to live the sort of lifestyle that the urbanists take for granted, we need to really fight back against that.
Henry Grabar: It’s funny you say that because those are all arguments that I feel like have been coming up in urbanist thinking for decades, but haven’t come up recently because energy prices have been so low for the last six or seven years. So it does feel to me like taking some things out of the toolkit that we haven’t used in a while, like saying, you know, blocking this apartment building is supporting American dependence on fossil fuels. That seems obviously true, and something that we sort of stopped underlining.
Aaron: In that Joe Biden speech we clipped at the top, you know, Joe Biden tells us it’s going to be okay. But it’s not gonna be okay. It’s not gonna be okay until we recognize that this kind of rising anti-democratic authoritarianism is being empowered by the gas that we put in our trucks here in the US and the gas that they use to heat their homes in Europe. And we are funding the demise of our own cities, of our own democracies and our own biosphere. And that’s not okay. You know, even if Uncle Joe tells us it’s okay, it’s not. We have to stop pretending like increasing oil production is going to make it okay.
Henry Grabar: And it’s super expensive. I mean, that’s the long-term equity argument in favor of high gas prices is that low gas prices encourage people to buy cars and trap them in these auto-dependent urban environments, which are pretty expensive to live in in transportation terms, even when gas isn’t expensive, right? Like, you know, I think AAA says the average cost of a new car every year is $10,000. That’s a huge section of your paycheck just spent on basically what is a requirement for having a job or going to school or taking your kids to school. And, you know, I think part of the argument that you guys make, which is right, is that there’s a certain freedom in not being beholden to that. And that is particularly evident when gas goes up as high as it is right now, and I think this is a great moment to help people see that.
Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars, Henry Grabar, thank you for joining us on the podcast. We really appreciate it.
Henry Grabar: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: Remember, if you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today starting at just $3 a month. You’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and some other fun stuff.
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Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Doug Gordon. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Aaron Naparstek.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.